Science versus religion: Are they “gifts” to each other?

November 29, 2019 • 10:30 am

Reader Mark called my attention to an accommodationist essay in Aeon by Tom McLeish, described as “a professor of natural philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York in the UK. He is the author of Faith and Wisdom in Science (2014), Let There Be Science (2016) and The Poetry and Music of Science (2019)”.

McLeish, to be sure, is a scientist of some accomplishment, having been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and has been awarded several academic medals. He’s also had an ecclesiastical award, having received the Lanfranc Medal from the Archbishop of Canterbury last year “as one of the most outstanding scientists of his generation, and the leading contemporary lay Anglican voice in the dialogue of science and faith..” But, as you might guess from his piece, he’s also not only been funded by the John Templeton Foundation (see here, for instance), but also is trustee of the Foundation. I suspect that be a trustee you have to have a demonstrated commitment to accommodationism.

Click on the screenshot below to read the latest attempt to show that science and religion are best buddies:

First, McLeish tries to dispose of the “conflict theory”, which is sometimes framed as the claim that science and religion have constantly been in conflict on all fronts. McLeish (all his quotes are indented):

The late-Victorian origin of the ‘alternative history’ of unavoidable conflict is fascinating in its own right, but also damaging in that it has multiplied through so much public and educational discourse in the 20th century in both secular and religious communities. That is the topic of a new and fascinating study by the historian James Ungureanu, Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition (2019). Finally, the concomitant assumption that scientists must, by logical force, adopt non-theistic worldviews is roundly rebutted by recent and global social science, such as Elaine Eklund’s major survey, also published in a new bookSecularity and Science (2019).

Well, even if you frame the theory McLeish’s way, it’s clear that there have indeed been sporadic but strong conflicts between science and religion, beginning with Galileo and extending through the creation-versus-evolution battle that started 160 years ago and continues to this day in the U.S. and Muslim world. But, as I explain in Faith Versus Fact, I do see the conflict as “unavoidable” in an important sense: both science and religion make statements about what’s true in the universe, but only science has a way to verify or falsify these statements. That’s why there are so many religions making competing truth claims, with no way to discern a “true” religion.

As far as Dr. Eckland is concerned, she has spent her career pushing the misleading idea that science and religion are in harmony because many scientists are religious. As I’ve argued many times before, all this shows is that some scientists can wall off a superstitious, faith-based way of ascertaining truth from a scientific, empirically-based way of ascertaining truth. It’s amazing to me that Ecklund has risen through the academic ranks by pushing this specious argument, but of course that’s what many people want to hear, including many nonbelievers who just want everybody to get along. (Ecklund, of course, is also heavily funded by Templeton.)

And so McLeish poses his questions:

It seems a good time to ask the ‘so what?’ questions, however, especially since there has been less work in that direction. If Islamic, Jewish and Christian theologies were demonstrably central in the construction of our current scientific methodologies, for example, then what might such a reassessment imply for fruitful development of the role that science plays in our modern world? In what ways might religious communities support science especially under the shadow of a ‘post-truth’ political order? What implications and resources might a rethink of science and religion offer for the anguished science-educational discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, and for the emerging international discussions on ‘science-literacy’?

Frankly, I’m tired of the claim that the foundations of modern science, and of its methods, are deeply rooted in Abrahamic religion. You can show that some early scientists, like Newton, thought that their work was revealing God’s plan, but even so they made progress by relying not on faith but on empirical observation. The methods of science are not the methods of religion, and were developed independently. Further, most good scientists in our day are atheists, and you’d be hard pressed to argue that they’re unwittingly using methods based on religion. Even if faith once motivated men like Newton, that motivation is defunct.

As for the other two questions, well, meh. How, for instance, is the creation-evolution debate going to be ameliorated and resolved by “a rethink of science and religion”?

Onward and upward. What points does the sweating professor make in his essay? I’ll give four. Briefly, they are these (McLeish’s words are indented):

1.) Without theology, the purpose of science is unclear, and even distorted. 

 . . . theology has retained a set of critical tools that address the essential human experience of purpose, value and ethics in regard to a capacity or endeavour.

Intriguingly, it appears that some of the social frustrations that science now experiences result from missing, inadequate or even damaging cultural narratives of science. Absence of a narrative that delineates what science is for leave it open to hijacking by personal or corporate sectarian interests alone, such as the purely economic framings of much government policy. It also muddies educational waters, resulting in an over-instrumental approach to science formation. I have elsewhere attempted to tease out a longer argument for what a ‘theology of science’ might look like, but even a summary must begin with examples of the fresh (though ancient) sources that a late-modern theological project of this kind requires.

Seriously, do you imagine that atheistic societies, like those in Scandinavia, would have a kind of science that is inferior to that of a more religious country like the U.S.? I doubt it. Britain is less religious than the U.S., and yet both Anglophonic countries do science the same way.

And if science is distorted by economic needs, well, sometimes those needs should be met, and at any rate that distortion is often the result of capitalism, or, as in the case of Lysenko’s Russia, of Communism. The fact is that any ideology can distort science, including theology.

You might be amused by McLeish’s contention that the Book of Job gives us material that is absolutely crucial to a theology of science. But I will drop that hot potato and pass on, giving just one specimen of McLeish’s muddled thought and writing:

The call to a questioning relationship of the mind from this ancient and enigmatic source [The Book of Job] feeds questions of purpose in the human engagement with nature from a cultural depth that a restriction to contemporary discourse does not touch.

I’m not sure that that’s even English. Why must these people write so turgidly?

2.)  Theology also promotes the doing of good science. 

A project on the human purpose for science that draws on theological thinking might, in this light, draw on writing from periods when this was an academically developed topic, such as the scientific renaissances of the 13th and 17th centuries. Both saw considerable scientific progress (such as, respectively, the development of geometric optics to explain the rainbow phenomenon, and the establishment of heliocentricity). Furthermore, both periods, while perfectly distinguishing ‘natural philosophy’ from theology, worked in an intellectual atmosphere that encouraged a fluidity of thought between them.

And yet the rise of modern biology since Darwin, including molecular biology and genetics, has nothing to do with theology. Jim Watson told me that Francis Crick in particular was motivated to discover the structure of DNA by his antitheism:  Crick wanted to demonstrate that the “secret of life” was purely physiochemical in nature.

What McLeish is doing is mistaking correlation for causation. As for the “scientific renaissance of the 13th century”, I know of no such thing. McLeish mentions a few names, but I’m not impressed with the work.

3.) The method of doing scientific experiments derives from theology.


The rise of experimentation in science as we now know it is itself a counterintuitive turn, in spite the hindsight-fuelled criticism of ancient, renaissance and medieval natural philosophers for their failure to adopt it. Yet the notion that one could learn anything general about the workings of nature by acts as specific and as artificial as those constituting an experiment was not at all evident, even after the foundation of the Royal Society. The 17th-century philosopher Margaret Cavendish was among the clearest of critics in her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1668).

For as much as a natural man differs from an artificial statue or picture of a man, so much differs a natural effect from an artificial…

Paradoxically perhaps, it was the theologically informed imagination of the medieval and early modern teleology of science that motivated the counterintuitive step that won against Cavendish’s critique.

Now how did that happen? Because, argues McLeish, Francis Bacon formulated his “experimental philosophy” in theological terms. Adjudicating that claim is above my pay grade, but I’ll add that Galileo (who lived at the same time as Bacon) and the Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, who worked on optics, also used the experimental methods, with hypotheses and tests. And did every experimentalist rely on Bacon’s “theology”?

Finally, as I’m growing weary, there’s this:

4.) We need more than the reason inherent in science to do science properly. Here McLeish quotes the critic and philosopher George Steiner to somehow confect a rapprochement between science and theology. If you can understand this kind of postmodern obfuscation, you’re better than I:

[Steiner} Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter…

Steiner’s relational language is full of religious resonance – for re-ligio is simply at source the re-connection of the broken. Yet, once we are prepared to situate science within the same relationship to the humanities as enjoyed by the arts, then it also fits rather snugly into a framing of ‘making accessible the sheer inhuman otherness of matter’. What else, on reflection, does science do?

(The superfluous dissection of words, like that of “religio” in the antepenultimate sentence, is a marker of postmodern writing. It’s showoffy but always contrived.)

What else does science do? Is matter really perceived as “inhuman”? Are the advances of geology and physics scary unless they’re somehow “humanized”? In truth, I don’t know what McLeish is talking about here, and I have a suspicion that neither does he.

In the end, McLeish reveals a motivation for accommodationism that I suspected from the beginning of his piece: his realization that religion, which he apparently embraces, is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world; and he has to show that it’s still relevant. And so he says this:

Although both theology and philosophy suffer frequent accusations of irrelevance, on this point of brokenness and confusion in the relationship of humans to the world, current public debate on crucial science and technology indicate that both strands of thought are on the mark. Climate change, vaccination, artificial intelligence – these and other topics are marked in the quality of public and political discourse by anything but enlightenment values.

Yes, irrationality, confirmation bias, and other psychological distortions of reality are pervasive, and while philosophy itself can contribute to clearing up confusion and framing discussion, theology—which is simply philosophy bent out of shape by a belief in the nonexistent—has nothing of relevance to contribute to matters like climate change and vaccination. Look how theology has already intruded uselessly into discussions of abortion and human reproduction!

And so, and I draw to a close, McLeish’s defense of religion’s value to science strains credulity, drawing on postmodernist Bruno Latour’s “call. . . for a re-examination of the connection between mastery, technology and theology as a route out of the environmental impasse.” If you understand that, call me. But here’s how McLeish uses Latour:

What forms would an answer to Latour’s call take? One is simply the strong yet gentle repeating of truth to power that a confessional voice for science, and evidence-based thinking, can have when it is resting on deep foundations of a theology that understands science as a gift rather than a threat. One reason that Katharine Hayhoe, the Texan climate scientist, is such a powerful advocate in the United States for taking climate change seriously is that she is able to explicitly work through a theological argument for environmental care with those who resonate with that, but whose ideological commitments are impervious to secular voices.

Well, yes, theology should recognize science as a gift rather than a threat. But the fact that McLeish needs to say that already shows anti-science currents among some theologians. And really, citing one religious climate scientist shows that theology is the way forward in solving global warming? Give me a break! If Greta Thunberg—the 16-year-old whose activities have prompted worldwide activism against anthropogenic climate change—is religious, it’s news to me. Thunberg is powerful because she’s angry, highly motivated, and representative of a younger generation that will experience more serious effects of climate change.

McLeish’s piece reads to me like muddleheaded palaver. But what else do you expect when a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation has to justify the value of religion for science? Everyone else besides the faithful already knows that religion has nothing useful to say to science.

48 thoughts on “Science versus religion: Are they “gifts” to each other?

    1. You’ll find it in H.L. Mencken’s acerbic but hilarious review of Thorstein Veblen’s verbose book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Mencken’s review, called “Professor Veblen” contains these words (you can see an excerpt here):

      Well, what have we here? What does this appalling salvo of rhetorical artillery signify? What was the sweating professor trying to say? Simply that in the course of time the worship of God is commonly corrupted by other enterprises, and that the church, ceasing to be a mere temple of adoration, becomes the headquarters of these other enterprises. More simply still, that men sometimes vary serving God by serving other men, which means, of course, serving themselves. This bald platitude, which must be obvious to any child who has ever been to a church bazaar, was here tortured, worried and run through rollers until it spread out to 241 words, of which fully 200 were unnecessary.

      1. I’m glad to know the source. Such a fun quote! It almost sounds like a mid-century Disney movie – “The Absent-Minded Sweating Professor”. Is Fred MacMurray still around?

    1. Yes, excellent. Especially that last line: “Everyone else besides the faithful already knows that religion has nothing useful to say to science.”

      Reminiscent of Hitchens’ quote: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on.” (page 64 in God is Not Great)

  1. It’s easy for me to imagine a religious scientist who avoids internal conflict by ignoring the points at which the two conflict. We are well-known compartmentalists. What’s odd is that people like McLeish, who focus on the potential conflicts and, presumably, study them closely but don’t go one way or the other. I suppose that they must indulge a third passon, the overwhelming desire to eliminate conflict in others. I bet he has a very confused internal struggle.

    1. You’re right. Religious scientists have their minds divided into watertight compartments, just like pedophile priests.

  2. Well, it seems to be inconvenient that ignorance of and objection to well established scientific theories (e.g. evolution) reliably tracks with rising religious belief belief in a population, not secularism.

    Every time I’ve ever seen a theist try to combine his theological beliefs with science it has resulted either in the religious part being gratuitous, or in the theology subverting good scientific thinking.

    Every. Single. Time.

    Plowing through these piles of theistic puffery is certainly tiring.

  3. There are very view times in history when religion welcomed new scientific discoveries. There are countless times when religion opposed them.

    I miss the penguins already. 🐧

      1. I am looking forward to seeing them. I hope you’ve got a video of penguins running. I’d like to see them run, like those two gentoos you photographed at Bluff Cove Lagoon.

  4. I can’t really understand why Templeton is so fixated on science. They are the spending section of religion, that spends most of it’s time collecting money. If their goal is to bring more into the flock, why not try spending on something else. Why is there so much conflict between religious groups? One religion had kind of a lock on Virginia until the revolution occurred. Soon after the movement came to stop taxing the public to support this specific religion. Other religions sprang up and the old one fell back. Maybe it’s all about money?

    1. It’s because of Sir John’s view that his money would be used to answer the Big Questions, i.e. the ways in which science would tell us about the divine. Templeton is simply carrying out his legacy in this way.

      1. Yes, I kind of knew that but had to ask anyway. When they speak of the “big” questions they always mean one that no one can answer. How did life begin? What is out there beyond the universe? You know, those questions that only religion can make up answers to and they really answer nothing. Where do we go when we die? Either into the ground to slowly decompose or a hot fire to take up less space. Not a big question.

  5. Professor McLeish notes that the scientific revolution (13th to 17th centuries) coincides with the simultaneous occurrence of various sorts of “theologically informed” thinking. But he overlooks the simultaneous occurrence of lower average temperatures, the so-called little ice age. It follows that the growth of Science is owed to chilly winters. [The mechanism might have to do with the more widespread use of buttons and underwear.]
    Is there a Cold Foundation somewhere that would give me a grant to conduct detailed, scholarly investigation of this insight?

    1. I think there may be a connection between the Reformation and the scientific revolution. The Reformation freed the human mind from the stultifying straight-jacket of Catholicism allowing new thinking not just in religion.

      1. But maybe the connection is between the development in Europe of movable type printing and all types of free-thinking, including BOTH the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. ???

        1. You’ve hit the nail on the head. With the invention of printing, people were able to read scripture for themselves, rather than have it interpreted by priests. That lead them to ask questions they didn’t previously and to the Reformation (or really, multiple reformations).

          The Church tried to ban the reading of scripture, especially by the lower classes but, of course, that just made them want to read it more.

          It’s similar to what’s happening now with the internet, except with the accessibility of scientific knowledge, people are questioning religion altogether and recognizing that religion makes no sense whatsoever. Thus, more and more people, especially younger ones, are choosing atheism.

    2. Descartes is credited for the first correct statement of the law of inertia. Some people wonder if he figured it out by watching skaters in the Netherlands during one of those cold winters.

  6. Tom McLeish is on the twelve-member Board of Trustees at the John Templeton Foundation. He has also received various grants from the Templeton organisation, presumably before joining the board. ClicK his face in THIS TEMPLETON LINK for his bio.

      1. And it compounds the difficulty of arguing against them since it’s almost impossible to understand what it is they are trying to say.

  7. I think stories like this always come back to the fundamental philosophical questions – in this case, the facts / value divide. In the bullet point version, the author seems to be proposing that religion is needed in this divide in a few ways:

    – To inform morality

    – To motivate people to act morally

    – To provide a philosophical framework that, historically at least, was the cultural base for Western Enlightenment values

    Regarding religion informing and inspiring morality – I tend to think that the cultural aspects of religion do serve as cohesion building / game theory solving / anti-anarchy / etc. forces in societies where things like secular rule of law aren’t sufficiently established; and that the spiritual side of religion is indeed the source of our moral instincts. (In a vague, ‘all things at their core contain Buddha nature or are the essence of God or a peaceful bright white light of pure love or some such thing, once you meditate on it for long enough’ kind of way). Interesting that in this article Warburton talks about sensory experience being central to Christianity – in my understanding, Christianity has traditionally eschewed the sensorial world while sensory mindfulness has been more characteristic of Eastern meditation. I can’t help but wonder if this is Christian culture being influenced by meditation culture, but maybe not – just a musing.

    Regarding whether or not there was something unique about Western Christianity that created the needed conditions for the Enlightenment and the associated scientific and technological advances – I think that’s a really interesting theory, although I think it would require much more analysis to be ‘proven’ provisionally true. I think a look at what other factors – such as the need for technology in warfare – were at play would have to be included before linking Western Christian philosophy to science.

  8. We only need to look at the history of China, for instance. They had their great moral teacher fourhundred years earlier, and didn’t require divine intervention from God to write down something like the Golden Rule. They were also capable inventors, requiring no input of theologians at all. The Greeks and Romans, who laid the true foundation of both Christianity as well as Europe did not need them either.

    Christianity rests on a central idea: that there’s a God Yaweh who made DNA out of thin air, which he implanted into a female member of homo sapiens to let her give birth to himself in hominid flesh (to later sacrifice himself to himself, sort of).

    The imagery of the virgin birth shows ancient ideas about conception. Humans procreate like plants. The semen carries the true essence of the child, and it goes into a fertile medium, and from that grows the offspring. It’s one reason why mothers and by extension women were associated with the earth, and fathers with the sky. But we know of gametes, DNA, chromosomes and enzymes for a while now, and that the mother is not providing merely the medium to grow in, but the larger gamete. And just like that, the central assertion of Christianity becomes an utter absurdity.

    Someone who wants to accommodate science with Christianity must accept the bizzare biblical account. Further, they must accept that Jesus de-materializes into another hiherto unknown dimension or location. And that telepathy is possible, or that God can read neural patterns somehow. The serious Christians I met typically ward of such imagery as trying to make fun of them, then proceed to ignore the science where it touches their faith. It looks like making fun of them, because that is what inadvertently happens when infantile ideas meet reality.

    Of course, it does not end there. I suspect it’s also why there’s no serious synthesis between our scientific understanding, “knowledge”, and religious mythology. We arrived as a species through evolution, after millions of years and alongside several human species who didn’t make it far enough to worry about their divine hominid creator. It took another tens of thousands winters of suffering in dank caves, with no “perfectly good” creator showing up to offer help.

    Evolution is obviously a miserable process that constantly throws sentient beings against a wall of suffering to carry on with those who survive the ordeal long enough. God perversely made parasites and other “lesser” creatures with no soul or sentience only to torment “higher” ones who have nerves that can be eaten and ripped out alive by one predator or another.

    Anyone who dared writing an account of a factually correct theology, one that respects our knowledge as accurate as possible instantly became an atheist and the book remains unfinished. Either that, or the writer died of embarassment for ever having entertained the idea.

  9. I find it curious that McLeish seems to never mention anything divine. The arguments he makes about the role of theology might just as well be made for cultural anthropology, or philosophy, or even the humanities in general. There is nothing in his arguments that requires gods, or angels, or saviors, or saints. He seems more like a Euclidean than a Christian.

    1. McLeish cannot define what a God is. Divinity is off limits to all people. Religion is a black box that is inoperable but simultaneously super powerful. It is indistinguishable from believing and knowing that fairy tells hold the full truth to reality.

  10. Here’s the key issue with religion and trying to reconcile it with science:


    As long as religion dances with the metaphysical, it will always fail to grasp the nature of reality.

    Science tells us what reality is through the scientific method. Art (and religion as mythological would fall into the ‘art’ category) gives us suggestions, options, avenues, etc on how to relate to the nature of reality.

    Today, I just finished reading The Crucible by Arthur Miller with the Introduction by Christopher Bigsby. The Salem tragedy still functions as an historic warning not to mix science and religion as though they’re on the same track to identify what is reality.

  11. Science v Religion.
    Science: The universe is 100% natural.
    Religion: There is more to the universe than meets the eye. Out there, or in here somewhere, there exists a supernatural realm which the faithful claim that anyone is a fool not to believe in. GROG

  12. I think Jordan Peterson started it. Lot’s of non believing scientists and intellectuals have been singing the praises of religion. They say it’s good for us (even though it’s not true). A recent example is British historian Tom Holland. I’ve seen him lament his own loss of faith.
    His latest book (US title): “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World”

  13. It is still worth inquiring whether there
    isn’t something in the Judeo-Christian tradition that facilitated the scientific revolution. The Muslim world had thinkers analogous to Friar Roger Bacon (e.g., Ibn al Haytham), but that perspective caught on in the Latin West and not elsewhere. Maybe the the idea of a lawful providence spurs the search for regularities in nature; but the vision of a fascist Allah who can make happen anything he fancies makes such a search appear pointless, or even impious.

    1. I think it is well established (correct me if I’m wrong) that the expansion of science in the Islamic was stifled mainly by the fundamentalist Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali in the 11-12th Century.

      1. As I understand it, Al-Ghazali’s position was precisely that the fascist Allah could (and did) make anything happen—and it was impious to posit natural regularities and hence limitations on Allah’s powers. An interesting question is why this world-view prevailed in the Arab/Islamic world but did not in Christendom. I don’t know, although I like to think that Chianti and Montepulciano were involved.

    2. Jon, I think that trope has little merit. The Greeks and Romans (especially the Hellenistic scientists) were on what one could call the verge of a scientific revolution that would compare to the one only seen after the reformation and renaissance in Europe. The demise of Alexandria was religiously (greatly Christian) inspired.
      The backwardness of Europe during the Middle Ages was not only due to the ‘barbaric’ invasions, but Europe went definitely Christian. If Europe defied the odds and became so scientifically developed, it probably was despite Christianity (after all, it took a millennium), not because of it.

  14. Theologians, and accommodationists, throw a bucket of ill defined theology over a heap of science – and proclaim how closely it fits.

    Philosophers throw a bucket of ill defined philosophy over a heap of science – and proclaim how closely it fits.

    The Woke throw a bucket of ill defined social justice over a heap of science – and proclaim how closely it fits.

    The Right throw a bucket of ill defined economic theory over a heap of science – and proclaim how closely it fits.

    There’s a theme. Mostly how good science would look if only it was dressed in my gang colours.

  15. His etymology of religion is wrong too. The re- prefix can also mean back – as in return or reflect – which is what it means in this case. Re- + ligo = tie back, bind out of the way which becomes religo(n-) = obligation, bond…

    I will allow that he might not know this as the reconnect definition is on the internet. But if he were a scholar, he would look it up in say the OED like I just did.

  16. These people that try to deny the inherent conflict between religion and science often begin with the correlation between scientific thinking and Christianity in Europe, and try to massage that correlation into something significant, while ignoring the fact that almost all recorded thinking in Europe was correlated with Christianity.

  17. Bacon’s name was invoked by British folks, but his philosophy of science is too naive to work – and Boyle, Newton, Hooke, etc. that were still his countrymen ignored it. (Nevermind on the continent.)

    Overselling Bacon’s role in the SR is a great tell for how someone regards the history of science.

    BTW, another “tell” is the inclusion of Judaism and Islam in the supposed background to the SR. I regard this as a sop to avoid appearing to partisan.

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